Endangered Species List May Not Be Best for Animals at Risk

Candice Gaukel Andrews January 6, 2015 19

In September 2015, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will rule whether sage grouse should be listed as an endangered species. ©Eric Rock

Gray wolves in the Great Lakes region received some good news last month. In a surprise, unusual ruling on December 19, 2014, United States District Judge Beryl A. Howell ordered that gray wolves in Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin be placed back on the federal endangered species list. Stating that taking wolves off the list in the Western Great Lakes was “arbitrary and capricious,” Judge Howell’s order now bans further wolf hunting and trapping in those three states, where the combined wolf population is estimated to be 3,600.

In 2012, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) dropped federal protections from the Great Lakes wolves and handed their management over to the states. In Wisconsin, where I live, a hunting season was promptly instituted; and in the first year of the organized hunt in 2012-2013, 117 wolves were killed, one more than the legal limit. During the 2013-2014 Wisconsin winter season, 257 wolves were killed (six more than the limit). This season, 154 wolves were killed—exceeding the state limit by four wolves—before officials ended the hunt on December 5, 2014. More than 1,500 Great Lakes wolves have been killed since 2012.

At this same time, in the western United States, sage grouse conservationists are wondering if keeping this severely threatened bird off the endangered species list might be a better plan of action in order to protect these birds.

Are sage grouse conservationists onto something? Is it possible that achieving an endangered status for a species—with the resultant long, legal battles—could actually work against its recovery?

Protections for the gray wolf have involved long, legal battles. ©Henry H. Holdsworth

Wolves: listed and delisted

FWS is currently conferring with the U.S. Department of Justice and Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin about whether to appeal Judge Howell’s ruling. The agency’s stance is that wolves have completely recovered in the Great Lakes region and the states have clearly demonstrated their ability to effectively manage their Canis lupus populations.

Gray wolves were poisoned, shot or trapped into near-extinction in all of the Lower 48 states in the last century. Only a remnant pocket remained in northern Minnesota when gray wolves were added to the federal endangered list in 1974.

Since that time—but especially in the last decade—there have been several court battles over the gray wolf. U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials tried to remove various populations of gray wolves from the endangered species list in 2004, 2007, 2009 and 2012. Arguing that the wolf’s situation remains precarious, the Humane Society of the United States successfully sued to stop the 2007, 2009 and now the 2012 delistings.

Sage grouse: never-to-be-listed?

Such back-and-forth battles regarding wolves has inspired some conservationists, who are working with other species, to eschew the listing route for other solutions. In the West, sage grouse advocates are hoping that a new strategy, now termed “cooperative conservation,” will keep the grouse off the list entirely.

In this model, energy industries, landowners, environmental groups and state agencies voluntarily pool money for habitat restoration and agree to site energy developments outside of the bird’s core habitat. By working together, it is hoped that costly, lengthy and hassle-filled legal battles can be avoided.

Some sage grouse populations are down by 90 percent from their heyday. ©Eric Rock

If history is an example, this strategy may be more optimal for wildlife. Out of about 680 species listed as threatened or endangered in the United States today, only 27 have ever been delisted, which means recovery after being listed is a monumental challenge. And in today’s economic climate, the FWS is forced to pronounce many threatened species as “warranted but precluded” from being on the list due to budget concerns. It’s clear that traditional regulatory enforcement isn’t going to work for many species.

On the other hand, according to the Audubon Society, cooperative conservation has already worked on a small scale for some animals. In August, the FWS opted not to list a population of Arctic grayling in Montana because the fish’s numbers have doubled since federal, state and private groups began collaborating in 2006. The dunes sagebrush lizard, a native of Texas and New Mexico, stayed off the list due to a conservation agreement between oil and gas operators, landowners and state agencies.

Money can be a huge motivating factor. Because a large portion of sage grouse habitat is also prime territory for coal, gas, oil, uranium and wind development, Wyoming stands to lose an estimated $8 billion in revenue from energy development if the bird is listed. Following Wyoming’s lead, 10 more sage grouse home states are setting up conservation agreements. For energy developers, they mean limiting where development can occur and possibly paying into a habitat restoration fund. Landowners agree to measures such as removing invasive plants that choke out sagebrush or taking down fences that can cause grouse to crash.

An FWS ruling on sage grouse is expected in September 2015. In the meantime, some are saying that keeping the species off the list might be the greatest conservation success of all.

Given what’s happened to gray wolves, do you think the goal should be to keep species off the endangered species list and opt for cooperative conservation instead?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,



  1. Riccardi Nicoletta March 2, 2015 at 4:43 pm - Reply

    I think it is not a question of listing or not, at least in Italy, probably in Europe. Lists are not updated and IUCN categorization is often not representative of actual conservation status. The reduction of funds, increasingly heavy in these years of crisis, and the wrong concept of flagship species, are the real impediments to conservation. The concept of conservation for too long made use of emotion rather than reason: everyone wants to save the dolphin, but not the beatle which is nice just to his mom. I recently tried to obtain funding for the conservation of a declining freshwater bivalve species (Microcondylaea bonellii) which distribution range restricted to a few scattered spots in Northern Italy. M. bonellii is nor a “flag species” neither a conspicuous species which can attract the emotional interest of the public. This limits the opportunity to obtain funding, even for updating actual conservation status and for acquiring basic information on its biological features (e.g. suitable fish host for larval development is still unknown). M. bonellii is only considered Vulnerable in the IUCN list based on fragmentary old data, and this limits the ability to access funding. Funding shortage prevents the acquisition of essential information to stimulate a revision of M. bonellii risk categorization. More: this makes impossible the application to EU LIFE Programme, which not only gives priority to concrete actions focused on protected areas and species categorized as “endangered”, but also pretends that the necessary knowledge has been already acquired. So this species is declining, unperceived, in spite of its key ecological role, because it is listed, but not correctly, and because it is nor a flag neither an attractive species.

  2. Donna Young March 2, 2015 at 4:31 pm - Reply

    Thanks for the interesting article Candice.Reading that just sickened me about the wolves.
    If you kill it, then EAT it. It’s just the thrill of the hunt for people. Not caring that these are sensitive caring animals.

  3. David C. Cruz January 11, 2015 at 11:10 am - Reply

    I never would have thought that listing an animal would cause a state to lose finances. Using the article’s example of Wyoming, it says they could lose $8 billion in energy development if the sage grouse is placed on the list. Very interesting read.

  4. Venkatasamy Ramakrishna January 10, 2015 at 10:55 am - Reply

    We only need to look at the number of us foraging the earth for our requirements to realise we are obviously not too concerned about other species.

  5. Kurtis Steinert, AICP January 10, 2015 at 10:54 am - Reply

    The ESA focuses on species, and uses the approach of protecting that species critical habitat while for some species this has been successful for others it has permitted the species to just get by. While the protection of species is important it should be paired with the protection of habitats not just those that are currently endangered or threatened. More recent work on multi species habitat conservation plans have been shown to be more successful since multiple habitats are conserved so that more species have a change at continuing. There is another question that this article does not raise nor is it covered in the ESA is there a time when it is appropriate to let a species go that its time on the evolutionary stage is over? Is the ESA based on the belief that all species that become endangered are because of the actions of man or are we trapped into thinking this is the case because we have such an impact, or is this the other side of that man has “control” on whether a species will continue or not. Not sure if the science is there to to tell the difference so it is better to use the default that we are at fault.

  6. Nuria Chacón Martínez January 8, 2015 at 9:25 am - Reply

    Interesting news and reflection Candice. Working in line with how it affects the protection of species from a viewpoint of social perception is very interesting. In Spain it could also studied the case of the wolf. Thanks for sharing!

  7. Glynn Goulding January 7, 2015 at 5:51 pm - Reply

    Every case needs to be looked at individually there must be a very strong case to remove them from the list. However being removed from the list in some cases has helped to slow down their demise particularly in Africa. An example is when a species was added the the endangered list poaching activity increased when removed it decreased. We know that this is not going to save the Elephant etc. from poachers but gives us more time. I do not agree that a species should be removed from the list on a political whim of an individual, political party or companies.

  8. Paul Davidson January 7, 2015 at 5:46 pm - Reply

    Just being on the list of endangered species doesn’t necessarily mean that the species will be saved. There are no incentives associated with the ESA and the program is grossly underfunded. The ESA has teeth on federal lands and can factor into management decisions if a federal permit is required or federal monies are used. But on private lands, when no permit is required and no federal monies are utilized, little is done to protect species in peril. Even in the best of circumstances, we see politics, the lack of flexibility in the federal system, and the inefficient workings of the federal government as lacking in making the ESA work effectively. In my opinion, there is a lot of money spent for the actual return on that investment. Private interests working collaboratively with state and federal agencies can accomplish a lot more with less. A good working example is the Black Bear Conservation Coalition, the organization that I have worked for for the past 23 yrs.

  9. Michael Murphree January 7, 2015 at 3:38 pm - Reply

    Candice your article raises very important questions that apply not only to the US but to conservation globally. Unfortunately the listing of species has become a blunt and poorly applied instrument for those generally opposed to any form of species use. There may be very good reasons to list certain species in specific contexts. However, what we now see are pressures for broad listings motivated by special interest groups that have very little understanding of conservation and advocate for preservationist approaches that often ignore the complexities of the socio-ecological environment in which all species exist. I would concur with Dr Vandemoer and Robles de Benito on being very careful about effectiveness of such regulation by government. In my experience, listing is not an indicator of conservation success but one of conservation failure. Promoting sustainable use and keeping a species off the list or removing it from the list is the real conservation challenge.

  10. David H. Davis, Certified Wildlife Biologist ® January 7, 2015 at 11:10 am - Reply

    Candice, while your comment “Out of about 680 species listed as threatened or endangered in the United States today, only 27 have ever been delisted, which means recovery after being listed is a monumental challenge” that does not and should not imply that listing was a wrong decision and that there are better alternatives. Listing usually happens a little too late and the nature of endangered species entails a monument challenge. These challenges as the WWF, USFWS, and most conservation-oriented biologists are keenly aware of are: the number remaining, the overall increase or decrease in the population over time, breeding success rates, or known threats. These are the challenges inherent in the biology of the species – not the decision process. It is great to read about ‘cooperative conservation’ efforts and, yes they work, but I do not see it as a better alternative to the protections offered to listed species. Thinking like this simply undermines the logic and strength of the ESA.

  11. Elena Kreuzberg-Mukhina January 7, 2015 at 11:07 am - Reply

    I also think that listing gives more chances to species for formal ways of conservation: legislative actions, strategies, attention of conservation organizations. In many countries this is just a way to pay attention of the problems of wildlife declining and species extinction.

  12. Lisa Smith January 7, 2015 at 11:00 am - Reply

    All conservation measures, including cooperative conservation is welcomed and should be prioritised. However, the fact that a conservation measure has helped a species not being listed is not the same as saying that species that are not listed have better chances. This is a false (and dangerous) syllogism.
    ESA (and other listing) should be complemented with any possible conservation action available.

  13. Brad Watson January 7, 2015 at 8:40 am - Reply

    If all states took species conservation seriously, the cooperative model would probably work. However, one needs only look at a state like Idaho to see the flaw in this model as a replacement for federal protections. Idaho’s governor has made it no secret he wants every wolf in Idaho dead, and doesn’t think they should be protected at all. So, by leaving conservation issues entirely up to states, in hopes that all states will be willing to cooperate with conservation groups to save species, we’d really be leaving conservation in the hands of whichever political party is in power in a given state at any given time. And in some states, it would mean the extirpation of species like the wolf and grizzly. I agree that the federal system needs work, but when you look at the more obvious problems with the current system, they too go back to politics and money.

  14. Andrew Wright January 7, 2015 at 6:44 am - Reply

    I am totally behind cooperative conservation, but I am not sure that this can replace listing. The biggest reason that listing hasn’t been very successful is that, all too often, listing and the associated protections arrive too late and the human actions causing the decline are too established. Protections thus meet heavy resistance are often inefficient ‘compromises’.

    I would suggest that cooperative conservation be the first choice, but that listing be kept as an option. If the relevant petitions ready for filing, in may act as additional incentive for society to work to find some sort of low-impact (to society) option to improving the status of the species.

  15. Richard H. Stafursky January 7, 2015 at 5:06 am - Reply

    It is essential that the EPA listing continue. Species protection must remain clearly in the minds of our children. There were many advances in national and international species protection. It would be going backwards to undue these sweeping laws. For all social issues this “return to state management” is always the battle cry of conservatives. It is ironic that CONSERVATIVE is the opposite of CONSERVATION. I think that Candice Gaukel Andrews wrote this story in a conservative tone to appeal to conservatives.

    All social movement go through this second guessing stage, but eventually social progress sticks. Nature conservation is not a business.

    Nature conservation is a social movement and is now taught nationwide to children in the classroom. For generations children have been inspired by the ethics of the national protection laws.

  16. Rafael Robles de Benito January 6, 2015 at 4:40 pm - Reply

    I agree with .Dr. Vandemoer. Furthermore, government regulation can be fatally counterproductive. For example, Mexico’s regulations, put in place supposedly to protect mangrove species, are now being a factor pressing for land use modification of mangrove swamps, sometimes even within protected areas

  17. Dr Kate Vandemoer January 6, 2015 at 2:14 pm - Reply

    I agree with this assessment. More government regulation does not equal protection for species, especially when government regulators have other motives besides species protection. Check out Wyoming’s plan for sage grouse, for example as an example of landowner initiative coupled with helpful state guidelines for conservation. Too bad the ESA has become a tool for land use control and for prevention of development, rather than what it was initially intended to do.

  18. Don Johnson January 6, 2015 at 2:13 pm - Reply

    No; ESA-listing provides the legal foundation for habitat protection. Voluntary “collaborative” agreements protect the financial interests of the participants while more habitat is lost. ESA-listing provides the basis for moving the interest of the species DSH in front of a judge who may put the interest of the species in front of economic interests.

  19. Dr UN Nandakumar January 6, 2015 at 8:41 am - Reply

    Co-operative conservation efforts & listing of species of RET or any other categories requiring special attention have to go hand in hand and definitely not in a manner competing to each other. Listing of species under certain category which require special attention should help these species the attention required. Listing of species should not under any circumstances result in not producing result what is desired. Attention at various levels – local, sub-regional,regional, national and global – are required to ensure that conservation at various levels are achieved.

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